Amazon forest fires are increasing, as is disinformation: don't let yourself be misled by these photos

The VRT's social media expert Tim Verheyden spotted various pictures on social media showing forest fires in the Amazon rain forest, and carefully checked them. While hashtags such #Amazonfire and #Amazonforest are trending on Twitter, it turns out many of the pictures are old, or not from the Amazon rain forest itself. "While this is not a classic case of fake news, as the facts haven't been made up, using false photos without mentioning these are archive pictures, is not a good thing in times of disinformation, says Tim Verheyden. Following is a resume of his article on the Dutch website.  

A hare killed by a blaze. This touching picture was shared a lot on social media recently, serving as an example of yet another victim of the Amazon fires. However, the animal was not killed in one of the recent fires in Brazil, but in a forest fire in Malibu, California, in 2018. 

It's just one of the thousands of pictures posted by concerned and angry people as large swathes of land are being eaten by the flames in the Amazon rain forest. The photos are not manipulated, but have taken out of context. 

The popular vlogger Logan Paul is asking "how can I help?" He includes a photo which was retweeted over 4,200 times and collected over 31,000 'likes'. However, the photo goes back to 1989. The actor Jaden Smith, son of the Fresh Prince Will Smith, shared the photo with his followers on Instagram, i.e. over 13 million people. 

The French president Emmanuel Macron shared a message on the Brazil inferno with the title "our house is burning". However, the picture he shares, goes back to 2012.

His message was shared 53,000 times and was liked over 146,000 times (his English tweet proved far more successful than his French one). Followers on Twitter informed the president that the photo was taken out of context, but today, Saturday, it is still online after being posted on Thursday.  The photo was taken by a photographer who died 16 years ago.

Verheyden adds that the tweet was shared by Justin Trudeau, the Canadian PM, and by many others, estimating that these other people have at least 23 million followers. 

Movie star Leonardo Di Caprio also shared the picture, but on Instagram. The news the celebrities are spreading is not fake news. But the photo is. On the one hand, a powerful photo triggers more interaction on social media, but on the other a false photo remains false.

We also see that those who share the same concerns or who are also touched by what happens in Brazil, often share the message without thinking twice. It seems the message itself is more important than the wrapping, i.e. the accuracy of the photo. 

The same photo is also used in another message, on Facebook, drawing a parallel with the Notre Dame. When we looked into where the photo originally comes from, we end up with the Australian actor and movie director Damon Gameau. This is the "oldest" version we can retrieve. The message was shared 64,000 times, triggering interaction with 31,000 users. Gameau told us that he wrote this original message and that the picture was meant symbolically.  

We see that news websites are re-using the picture without mentioning that this is an archive photo. In times of disinformation, in which the media in general are being increasingly criticized, this is not a good thing. 

Verheyden realises that we don't have hundreds of new photos of the present fires at our disposal, since we are talking about the Amazon, a rather deserted area, but says that making a bigger effort wouldn't be bad.

"Hollywood stars or a French president enjoy a high credibility and bear a large responsibility. We should be able to take for granted that if they share something with the world, this has been double- or triple-checked. In that case, you can't blame people for sharing the message later on. This being said, this does not wipe out the fact that the Amazon is suffering many and intense forest fires.  

When a Hollywood star or a French president share something, we assume this has been checked twice or even three times

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